The pandemic has changed everyone’s life, and a lot of those changes have brought on unprecedented levels of stress for many. From quarantining to lost jobs and businesses to families having to adapt to kids distance learning from home, it’s been a year like no other.
And all that stress has started to manifest in dentist and oral surgeon practices.
The American Dental Association (ADA) detailed in a September report that more than half of dentists surveyed saw an increase of patients with conditions usually associated with stress: chipped and cracked teeth, grinding and over-clenching teeth, and symptoms of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder such as jaw pain and headaches.
“We have seen an increasing amount of fractured teeth in probably the past six months,” Dr. Paul Koshgerian, an oral surgeon in San Diego, told CNN. Dentists often refer patients with badly damaged teeth to oral surgeons.
Koshgerian and other dental professionals report that prior to the pandemic, they were seeing one case of a cracked tooth per day or every other day; that number has jumped to an average of two a day and up to as many as five cases per day.
Grinding or gnashing teeth due to stress—which is almost always involuntary—leads to more tooth damage. Because it’s a problem that is difficult to self-diagnose, people who grind their teeth often don’t realize they’re doing it.
“You’d be surprised how many people are unaware that they’re clenching and grinding,” Tammy Chen, a dentist in New York City, wrote in The New York Times. “Even patients who come into the office complaining of pain and sensitivity are often incredulous when I point it out. ‘Oh, no. I don’t grind my teeth,’ is a refrain I hear over and over again, despite the fact that I’m often watching them do it.”
Symptoms of clenching or grinding your teeth, called bruxism, are:
- Jaw soreness.
- Dull headaches.
- Painful or loose teeth.
- Chipped or fractured teeth.
- Swelling of gums indicative of infection.
And, while damaged teeth in adults are often the result of stress, that’s not necessarily true with children, according to the ADA. Other possible causes of teeth grinding in children include:
- Irritation in the mouth.
- Misaligned teeth.
THE FIGHT AT NIGHT
Dental health professionals say many people who suffer from teeth grinding and TMJ don’t address the issues early on because they are unaware that stress built-up during the day migrates to the teeth at night during sleep. In the daytime when you’re fully conscious, you can likely feel yourself tensing up and decide to relax, Koshgerian said, but you lose that control while you’re sleeping.
“So that parasympathetic (nervous system) activity, which causes relaxation in the muscles, oftentimes is absent,” he added. “The sympathetic response, which makes the muscles contract, kind of takes over and they go unchecked, which causes quite a bit of strain in the muscles, and the teeth pay the price for that.”
POOR POSTURE: PART OF PROBLEM?
Also leading to the spike in damaged teeth, dentists say, is the huge number of people who are working from home for the first time, often in less-than-ideal ergonomic conditions: A makeshift workstation may be on the couch, sitting on a barstool, or on a kitchen counter. All of this potentially poor body positioning over long periods can have ramifications on the spine, which can lead to teeth grinding at night.
“The simple truth is that nerves in your neck and shoulder muscles lead into the temporomandibular joint … which connects the jawbone to the skull,” Chen said.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
During the day, awareness is critical. Your teeth generally shouldn’t touch throughout the day unless you’re chewing and eating food. If they regularly are touching, it’s likely you have stress in your jaw and some level of teeth grinding is doing damage.
Dental professionals say clenching and grinding can often be alleviated when people simply become more self-aware of the problem and catch themselves doing it. If the problem persists, regularly exercising or engaging in activities like yoga, meditation, and massage can help reduce stress, Koshgerian said.
Before going to bed, try some easy relaxation techniques to shed some of the stress created by daily rigors such as deep breathing, spending a few minutes without any television or phones to clear you head, or listening to soothing sounds.
If you continue to wake up with jaw soreness or other signs of nighttime teeth grinding, consult your dentist to get fitted for a night guard or retainer that can absorb the pressure of grinding without damaging your teeth. A fitted night guard can also be used during the day to help break a clenching or teeth-grinding habit.
The Department of Consumer Affairs’ Dental Board of California and Dental Hygiene Board of California license dental professionals throughout the state. To check the license of a professional who you can consult about any dental issues, go to http://search.dca.ca.gov.